14 September 2023

'Massive interference with Territory rights': Senator Cash moves bill to stop drug decriminalisation laws

| Claire Fenwicke
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Senator Michaelia Cash

Senator Michaelia Cash wants to stop the ACT’s drug decriminalisation laws, which come into effect next month. Photo: Facebook.

The Federal Opposition has launched a new attempt to interfere with Territory business. This time, the ACT’s drug decriminalisation legislation is in its sights.

Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash today (14 September) tabled a private senator’s bill titled the Australian Capital Territory Dangerous Drugs Bill 2023.

Her bill’s purpose is to modify the Territory’s Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Act 2022 so that it “has no force or effect as a law of the Australian Capital Territory, except as regards the lawfulness or validity of anything done in accordance with that Act before the commencement of this Act”.

Ms Cash’s explanatory memorandum stated that her bill acts in the interests of Canberra’s “families, police, pharmacists and the general community” to keep the status quo of how illicit substances are currently treated in the Territory.

This would mean that the existing offence provisions from the Drugs of Dependence Act 1989 would continue to apply, with no differentiation in offences based on whether a person has a “small quantity” of a drug.

It would eliminate the drug offence notice for possession of substances such as heroin and meth and keep the current penalties available to the courts.

“The bill will be entirely prospective and will not affect the validity of anything done prior to its commencement,” the explanatory memorandum stated.

“This bill does not modify the ACT Legislative Assembly’s powers or otherwise affect the Australian Capital Territory Self-Government Act 1989 (Cth).”

It’s expected the bill will be debated during the October sitting of the Federal Parliament.

It comes a day after Senator Matt Canavan’s bill to force an inquiry into the Territory’s acquisition of North Canberra Hospital was defeated.

READ ALSO Claims the interim Territory Plan will send housing density backwards refuted by government

Senator Cash’s motion has outraged the ACT Government. Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith labelled the notion that it won’t interfere with the ACT’s self-governance as “quite ridiculous”.

“Another day, another attack on Territory rights by the Federal Coalition,” she said.

“What Senator Cash is trying to do is to change a decision that was legitimately made by the Legislative Assembly after a thorough Assembly process … [she] is really clutching at straws if she thinks this isn’t a massive interference with Territory rights because it absolutely is.”

ACT Labor Senator Katy Gallagher also expressed her concerns, stating this was a matter for the Territory Government.

“The ACT Assembly is a mature parliament democratically elected by ACT voters,” she said.

“I have spent my career in public life supporting the rights of Canberrans to determine the laws, policies and programs under which they are governed, and I will continue to do so despite the attempts by the Federal Opposition to try to undermine them.”

While Independent ACT Senator David Pocock also described the bill as an “attack” on Territory rights.

“It is hugely disappointing to see interstate senators continuing to try and interfere with the ACT’s democratically elected government,” he said.

“If they would like to see changes in the ACT’s laws, I would encourage them to run for the Legislative Assembly at next year’s election.”

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the move by the Federal Opposition to stop the ACT’s drug decriminalisation laws threatened the Territory’s rights. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee said while her party didn’t support the drug decriminalisation, she also didn’t condone the Federal Government trying to get involved.

She has already written to her Federal counterparts about her concerns with Ms Cash’s bill.

“I would always be very concerned about any steps to diminish [Territory rights],” she said.

“When these [drug decriminalisation] laws were introduced, we opposed them … [but this bill] is of concern to me because I strongly believe in Territory rights, and of all Canberrans to have the same equal, democratic rights as everybody else in Australia.

“I do not agree with this action taken by the Federal Coalition to seek to overturn legislation that was passed by the ACT Assembly.”

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It comes just days after the Canberra Liberals attempted to force the current government to campaign on its policy of drug decriminalisation at the election rather than go ahead with the change next month.

The manoeuvres come in the wake of a recording of Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith that seemed to suggest the Labor Party had come up with an alternative way to have its drug decriminalisation policy moved through the legislative processes faster – namely, introducing it as private member’s business rather than a regular government bill.

Canberra Liberals deputy leader Jeremy Hanson moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly to pause the policy’s implementation until December 2024.

“If you intend to bring something to this parliament, you should have the courage to go to the election and talk about it,” he said.

He accused the government of hiding its stance on drug decriminalisation before the 2020 election, stating that this meant people couldn’t know what they were voting for at the time.

“We were fooled just as the rest of the community was. We had a debate about the government doing an investigation, but all along you were going to cook up a bill to decriminalise heroin and meth,” Mr Hanson said.

“You did not reveal that once in that debate, not once in the campaign.

“If you’re so confident about this reform … let’s have that debate in the election. Come on. Let’s do it. I dare you.”

Mr Hanson’s motion failed to pass the Legislative Assembly.

The Canberra Liberals have confirmed they would repeal the law if they were to gain power at the next election.

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Suppose this government said, OK, guns – muzzleloaders are now legal. Illegal dealers will be out of business because police will be able to focus on arms trafficking

Legal or not I’ll be carrying a firearm for my family’s safety.

This law, whether you agree with it or not, is a side-issue. The main issue is the Federal Coalition trying to override local democracy. This is yet another attempt to prevent the ACT from making its own laws, whilst refusing to fund the ACT when it did rule the territory. They forced the ACT into self-government, so they should respect that government.

Clearly they have nothing better to do and certainly nothing constructive, as usual. It is all about destroying anything that is not their initiative, perhaps because they have no new ideas of their own.

When the local government comes up with such a twisted idiotic piece of legislation such as this I think the Feds should be able to overrule it.

Except that the ACT is not really a local democracy – it is not like the states. By dint of the Self-Government decision, the ACT Government is more akin to a chartered Committee of the Federal Government. Thus the Federal Government has an obligation to provide oversight on how this Committee operates – again, unlike the states which are independent entities under a ‘common wealth’ agreement.
Viewed from this perspective, it is natural for the Federal Government to bring the ACT ‘into line’ if they feel that the ACT Government has overstepped its ‘charter’. This perspective also opens up a broader discussion about trust and boundaries that cannot be covered in this comment.

You mean the coalition trying to prevent Canberra from becoming the drug and petty crime capital of Australia. Legalised addictive drug laws in the US and The Netherlands have only increased the crime rates there. Because even if addictive drug taking is decriminalised the crime that goes with that drug taking increases, it certainly doesn’t decrease. That’s the overseas experience. However that’s the facts that the almost permanently installed extreme leftist government in Canberra doesn’t want to understand, let alone address.

So self-government is OK, as long as the government of the day passes legislation with which you agree, Rob?

You can misinterpret the ACT’s drug laws all you like Rob which you quite often do. But what this all boils down to is a federal Liberal conservative government, contemptuous of ACT voters and with the encouragement and support of their ACT division, interfering in the legislative processes of our democratically elected government do its job. Out of town politicians who we did not vote for, obstructing and hindering the ACT parliament to conduct its business of governing and legislating for its citizens who voted for them!

Good, now legalise guns so we can protect our families from the addicts.

I agree. Our local politicians are so insular that they do not remember that Canberra is the nation’s capital – 26m+ compared to 400k. It is a shame that we have homeless permanently in our city centre already who openly take drugs, drink and beg. These ‘decriminalisation’ laws will contribute nothing to our city’s image domestically and internationally.

So many comments on here that clearly do not understand the Commonwealth maintains authority over the territory and may overturn local laws.
For the most part Canberra is just a large country town with a massively bloated underperforming bureaucracy that frequently oversteps its mark.
The quantities of drug in these proposed laws are not drugs of dependence (personal use), they are trafficable amounts that will see an increase in users coming to this town to take shelter from the law, and with that organised criminal drug businesses, our police service is already desperately lacking resources, many of our road fatalities are drug related.
Why would anyone seek to increase the frequency of these incidents in this large country town?

Feds wont want their departments run in the drug capital of Australia.
Whats the alternative they roll out drug testing across the public service?

Its on the news that this drug change in the ACT was snuck in as there was no support for it.

The senators by duty of their roll spend a fair amount of time in the ACT.
There is no evidence that the drug changes are good for anyone in the ACT.

Linda Seaniger12:26 pm 15 Sep 23

Some Federal Government depts already have compulsory drug and alcohol testing. If you give a positive reading, there is Zero tolerance and your out of the PS.

How offensive this is. Liberal senators from interstate introducing bills into the federal parliament to overrule ACT laws so that they have no force or effect. The Liberals, still out of sorts at losing their only ACT senator, using their power in the parliament to undermine ACT legislation and weaken our democratically elected government to do its job. This bill, introduced by WA Liberal senator Michaela Cash comes a day after Queensland Liberal senator Matt Canavan’s failed attempt to force the Territory to hold an inquiry into the acquisition of the North Canberra Hospital. Where does it end?
It also reveals how irrelevant Elizabeth Lee has become as ACT Liberal leader. It appears she has been sidelined. Elizabeth has been the lone voice of her party in the media today criticising her federal colleagues and the bill. Deputy leader Jeremy Hanson and his Liberal colleagues have been suspiciously absent.
Jeremy has been out there actively lobbying his federal colleagues over his long political career in opposition to interfere in the ACT’s business and legislation which he is vehemently opposed to. This has been widely reported in the media. That is how Jeremy works.
Jeremy wants to be leader again one day and his skullduggery and hard right views on law reform are well known. Opposition to drug law reforms has been on his radar for many years and the Calvary acquisition was a gift that he and his federal colleagues took on with relish.
Watch out Elizabeth!

I guess if you want it to be a haven for every drug dealer in Australia I can see why you would have a problem. Yes this is another great idea.

Gordon Williamson9:35 pm 14 Sep 23

I think the actual legislation is a terrible thing. But it is something for ACT residents and their elected representatives to decide. It is not a matter for a senator from Western Australia to decide for us.

It only applies to amounts below trafficable levels and it still incurs fines (just not convictions for minor amounts for personal use). This allows the police to concentrate on the actual dealers so, no, it won’t provide a “haven for every drug dealer in Australia”. It is still a criminal offence to traffic drugs.

the federal government has previously interfered with our ability to pass legislation on voluntary assisted dying and same sex marriage. funny how both are now legislated throughout Australia. I don’t know how the decriminalisation will work out in practice, but I think it’s worth giving it a shot and it’s OUR choice.

Gordon Williamson1:36 pm 14 Sep 23

So having lost power at a Federal level, the coalition now wants to assert power over the residents of the ACT?

While having not won an ACT election since the 90s… they’re pathetic!

I’m trying to work out how exactly it’s her business? Or is this “we can’t win government in the ACT so this is how we’ll try and govern”?

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